WORD SEARCH with Adair Jones

What makes for good writing?

Posted in Fundamentals, Uncategorized by Adair Jones on March 13, 2013

Books-02

What makes for good writing? There are a thousand ways to go about answering this question. One might offer examples—Shakespeare, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. These are writers who have produced good writing. But listing them doesn’t get at why they are good. And it offers no help to the writer who is wondering how to produce something striking, original, and moving.

A better approach is to turn the question around: What are the things that if they are missing make a piece of writing not good? Three essential elements jump out right away: practice, trust, and judgment.

Practice

In a recent interview, the Australian writer, Helen Garner said:

“…you’ve got to practice every day. It’s like practicing an instrument if you’re a musician or keeping your tools sharpened. After many years of daily practice… you actually build up a competence.”

Cormac McCarthy said something similar but more laconically: “If you’re going to be a writer, then writing is what you have to do.”

These successful writers are on to something. Daily writing is the place to innovate, experiment, try on other voices. It’s daily exercise, like jogging, swimming laps or working out at a gym. It keeps you fit, trim, well-trained.

Be disciplined: set a goal—one hour, so many words—and do it everyday. A lack of daily practice will show in a piece of writing.

Trust

If practice is like daily exercise, trust works as the metabolic centre of the writing process. It’s what fuels good writing.

This element is about having a good relationship with your creative self. It works in several ways:

  • Knowing when to listen – Certain ideas and themes resonate for a reason. It’s because you have something to say.
  • Believing in the inner work – If the time is not right, forcing it won’t come to any good. There is a really important purpose to writer’s block, and this should be listened to.
  • Drawing from the well – Having a notebook on hand to jot ideas down as they occur is one method. Some writers never do this, however. They test the value of an idea by letting it surface over and over.
  • Communicating honestly – Find your voice; be authentic. Write what you know. Find a way to put yourself and your experiences into the story.

Attempting to control the process, writing prematurely or in the wrong genre, and being inauthentic in any way will show in the quality of the writing.

Judgment

Everyone’s heard the saying: One part inspiration, ten parts perspiration. Inspiration comes from trusting in the writing process; judgment is the ‘ten parts perspiration’. It’s the conscious grind, bringing the intellect to bear on each and every aspect of the process.

If practice is what keeps one in shape as a writer, and trust is the inner work—the metabolic system—of writing, judgment is involved with the actual performance. It’s the ‘big game’, where a writer gets to apply training, draw from the well of creativity, and produce a fine piece of writing.  It requires rigour, energy, stamina: How many drafts are needed to get it right?  How much reshaping? How much editing?

Hemingway said: “The mark of a good book is how much good writing you cut out of it.” Stephen King said: “Be prepared to murder your darlings”.

It’s a good idea to read your work out loud. Wherever you stumble, make a change. I heard a story about a writer who holds herself to account in the following way: Before she submits any piece of writing, she performs a ritual. She goes into the bathroom, takes off her clothes, stands before the mirror and reads it out loud. Asked why she does this, she says: because if I’m there naked in front of the mirror, I can’t hide and I can’t lie.

Conclusion

The more one practices, the more one trusts in the process and the more one exercises experienced judgment, the better the writing will be. It’s a simple approach that will lead to honest, living prose.

Review of Sincerely, curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire

Posted in review by Adair Jones on December 5, 2012

sincerely

“Witty, wise and wonderful”

Sincerely: Further adventures in the art of correspondence from Women of Letters

Try as I might, I just couldn’t read this book cover to cover.  It’s designed to be dipped into, and this is but one of the many joys Sincerely has to offer.  Sincerely is the second collection by Women of Letters, a literary salon with the aim of celebrating the lost art of letter writing while also raising funds for the Victorian animal rescue shelter, Edgar’s Mission.

There are love letters, complaints, apologies, letters to treasured possessions, to songs, to white lies and to good decisions, to lives that could have been lived— themes that are diverse and intriguing, that give readers an intimate look into the hearts of some of Australia’s finest literary, political, and theatrical figures.  Helen Garner writes to a primary school teacher she misjudged, looking back on childhood experience with adult eyes.  Alice Pung’s exploration of cross-cultural misunderstanding in online dating had me laughing out loud.

Sincerely also includes letters from men writing to the woman who changed their lives, with a range of offerings from Julian Burnside, Shaun Micallef, David Williamson, and Robert Manne, to name only a few.

Though the entries in this collection were first performed at the Women of Letters salon events, nothing is lost in the written word.  In fact, the individual voices of the authors shine through, sometimes lighthearted and whimsical, sometimes poignant and nostalgic.  Sincerely is a potent tribute to an art that is shown to be not only a lot of fun but also very much alive.

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Sincerely: Further adventures in the art of

correspondence from Women of Letters

curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire

Penguin Australia

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Review first published in The Courier-Mail in November 2012.

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In Search of Cancer in Literature

Posted in From a lost notebook, Fundamentals by Adair Jones on October 3, 2011

In search of cancer in literature

The word cancer comes from the Greek word karkinos meaning “crab”.  It was coined by Hippocrates, who thought tumours resembled these creatures.  Cancers were known of in ancient times, but little could be done to arrest the disease.  Early medical techniques were drastic and, without anaesthesia, tortuous.  In more recent literature, stories about cancer tend to focus on psychological and sociological dimensions of the disease.  It serves as a metaphor for the death that awaits us all.

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Ancient Egyptian texts, Papyrus Louvre E32847, recto 20-verso 16 (1500BCE)

The world’s oldest documented cases of cancer are recorded on these papyrus texts, which elaborate eight cases of tumours occurring on the breast.  According to the inscriptions, there was no curative treatment for the disease, only palliative treatment.  Surface tumours were surgically removed in a  manner similar to today.  Deeper tumours required cauterisation, an attempt to destroy tissue with a hot instrument known ‘the fire drill’.

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Hippocrates, Hippocratic Corpus (460-377BCE)

Hippocrates gives an account of a woman from Abdera who had a carcinoma of the breast with a bloody discharge from her nipple.  When he treated this discharge, stopping the bleeding, she died.  He also noted that when menstrual bleeding ceased, breast cancer became more prevalent.  He identified stages of cancer, noting that, as the disease progresses, the patient develops a bitter taste, refuses food, develops a shooting pain from breast to neck, complains of thirst and becomes emaciated.  From this point, death was certain.

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The Legend of Saint Agatha (3rd Century BCE)

Born into an illustrious family, Agatha found faith early in life.  Possessing both wealth and beauty, she caught the attention of Quintianus, a local dignitary.  Bent on gratifying his lust and avarice, exploited the emperor’s edict against the Christians and had her kidnapped. Rather than submit, she prayed for salvation.  This infuriated Quintianus, who had her tortured in increasingly gruesome ways, even cutting off her breasts.  Her wounds miraculously healed, a fact Quintianus ignored.  Finally, she asked God to receive her and gave up her ghost.  Because of her mutilation, she is known as the patron saint of breast cancer.

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Fanny Burney, A Mastectomy: Letter to Esther Burney (1812)

…When the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast – cutting through veins – arteries – flesh – nerves – I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision – & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still! so excruciating was the agony. When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound – but when again I felt the instrument – describing a curve – cutting against the grain, if I may so say, while the flesh resisted in a manner so forcible as to oppose & tire the hand of the operator, who was forced to change from the right to the left – then, indeed, I thought I must have expired.

I attempted no more to open my Eyes, – they felt as if hermetically shut, & so firmly closed, that the Eyelids seemed indented into the Cheeks. The instrument this second time withdrawn, I concluded the operation over – Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed – & worse than ever, to separate the bottom, the foundation of this dreadful gland from the parts to which it adhered – Again all description would be baffled – yet again all was not over, – Dr Larry rested but his own hand, & – Oh Heaven! – I then felt the Knife tackling against the breast bone – scraping it! – This performed, while I yet remained in utterly speechless torture, I heard the Voice of Mr Larry, – (all others guarded a dead silence) in a tone nearly tragic, desire everyone present to pronounce if anything more remained to be done; The general voice was Yes, – but the finger of Mr Dubois – which I literally felt elevated over the wound, though I saw nothing, & though he touched nothing, so indescribably sensitive was the spot – pointed to some further requisition – & again began the scraping! – and, after this, Dr Moreau thought he discerned a peccant attom – and still, & still, M. Dubois demanded attom after atom…

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 The Death of Jane Austen (18 July 1817)

Jane Austen’s death at the relatively young age of 41, has been the subject of much speculation.  Critics and historians have suggested a number of possibilities, from a recurrence of childhood typhus to bovine tuberculosis to Addison’s Disease.  More recently, lymphoma has been put forward as a possible culprit.  In Jane Austen (2001), Carol Shields speculates that the author died of breast cancer.  It’s worth noting that Shields died two years after publishing the Austen biography.  Cause of death? Breast cancer.

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Edith Wharton, “Diagnosis” (1930)

This short story focuses on the reverberations of illness and impending death–specifically, the way a diagnosis can lead to certain behaviours that would otherwise not be undertaken. As he is leaving his doctor after being pronounced healthy, Paul Dorrance spies a piece of paper with the word “cancer” written on it.  Believing his doctor has deceived him, he leaves in a cloud of gloom and, in that mood, is prompted to propose to Eleanor, his long time mistress.  He had earlier that day determined to break off with Eleanor, but now feels she is just the one to care for him through illness until death.  However, Paul survives in surprising good health.  It’s Eleanor who becomes ill, dying of a heart attack many years later.  Paul then learns she had paid a visit to the doctor on the fateful day of Paul’s cancer “diagnosis” tricking him as he sought to trick her.

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Simone de Beauvoir, A Very Easy Death (1965)

Although I was not with Maman when she died, and although I had been with three people when they were actually dying, it was when I was at her bedside that I saw Death, the Death of the dance of death, with its bantering grin, the Death of fireside tales that knocks on the door, a scythe in its hand, the Death that comes from elsewhere, strange and inhuman: it had the very face of Maman when she showed her gums in a wide smile of unknowingness.

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward (1968)

Solzhenitsys examines with clinical precision the nature of the physical disease and the process whereby the patient, like the prisoner–“stripped of his outer bark and ready to be planed”–is revealed to himself and sometimes transformed by the confrontation with death.

Cancer Ward is based on his own experiences when he was cast up in Tashkent, sick with cancer, after having spent  eight years in prisons and camps.  Still in exile, he entered a hospital where his cancer, never clearly diagnosed as malignant, was “cured”.

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Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (1978) and

David Rieff, Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir (2008)

Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor, originally published as three long essays in The New York Review of Books, while she was being treated for breast cancer in the early 1970s.  In the treatise, she writes about the kingdom of the ill and challenges the blame-the-victim mentality that surrounds illness.  Without mentioning her own illness, she defies the thinking that cancer is caused by the patient’s supposed ‘cancer personality’.  According to proponents of this theory, patients bring cancer upon themselves by having a resigned, repressed, inhibited personality.  In some way or another, the patient derives emotional benefits from illness, and the patient can overcome cancer by consciously choosing to give up these benefits.

Sontag died in New York City on 28 December 2004, aged 71, from acute myelogenous leukaemia, a cancer of the blood.  Her final illness has been chronicled by her son, David Rieff, in Swimming in a Sea of Death.  He reports that the most difficult aspect of her final decline was the terrifying democracy of illness and shows that, in the end, Sontag couldn’t live her illness without metaphor: she needed the idea of a fight even after the fight was lost.

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Helen Garner, The Spare Room (2008)

A woman named Helen prepares her spare room for her fried Nicola who has stage-four cancer.  Nicola, who refuses to believe she is dying, is coming to Helen’s city in order to undertake an alternative therapy that Helen believes is pure quackery.  This novel, which inhabits a land between fiction and non-fiction, shows two powerfully different views of illness.  The clear, calm perspective of the healthy is a luxury dreamed of by the dying. Helen remains furious, judgmental, powerless; Nicola, also ultimately powerless, clings to the shreds of hope, refusing to submit to the inevitable.

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Angry penguins, fakes, and other monsters

Posted in Rediscovered by Adair Jones on April 10, 2011

Ern Malley by Sidney Nolan

Angry Penguins, Fakes, and Other Monsters

What we write, like what we do, can take on a life of its own. And there are a lot of ways it can get out of control. I recently saw the DVD of Capote, a movie about writing and about the cost of being a writer. In the epilogue to the movie, before the final credits, we learn that In Cold Blood was Truman Capote’s greatest book and that it was also his last. He had the literary genius to recognize that ‘mining’ the story of Perry Smith, a cold-blooded killer awaiting execution, would make for a compelling narrative. What he couldn’t predict was that it would also change the way fictional accounts of real events would be written—and read. What he couldn’t imagine was that he would never again be able to live with himself for betraying Smith’s trust for the ‘story’. The movie shows an artist fracturing before our eyes and, in his place, we discover a sort of Frankenstein-like figure: pitiable, lost, doomed. A few short years later, Capote was to die of alcohol-related illness.

Helen Garner got it right when she wrote in one of her essays: “Writers will insist on writing about everything. We are voracious monsters, ravening beasts who roam the world seeking whom and what we may devour. There’s hardly a corner or cranny of life that hasn’t been zeroed in on, exposed to the light and relentlessly verbalised by some maniac with a biro and a keyboard.”

A couple of years ago on a trip to Melbourne, I arranged to meet B.D., a friend who had recently returned to that fabled city from what he considered to be the dreary exile of Brisbane. The trip happened to coincide with the re-opening of the Gallery and we decided to meet there. With sparkling eyes and a big hug, the first thing he said was: “It’s like I’d never left Melbourne. All those years in Brisbane seem like a long weekend.”

We wandered around the Gallery, chatting, catching up, stopping for a moment before the Jackson Pollack painting, Blue Poles. “It’s odd,” I said. “There is a bench here as if they expect crowds to sit in contemplation, yet the gallery is empty.” B.D. told me of the public outcry at their purchase. In 1973, the Gallery purchased the 1952 painting for $2 million, which was then the highest price paid for a contemporary artwork. “I suppose the bench is an artefact of the protest,” B.D. mused. “Something they put there to placate the public, to suggest its value, to create the illusion that the public would eventually get its money’s worth.”

We moved on to the Gallery café, where I quickly became intoxicated on too many strong coffees. I chattered on, enthusing about “the sleek look of the Gallery, how absolutely lovely it was to have a weekend away, how fascinating I found public outcries—indeed, how I would so like to write a series of one-act plays about them, isn’t that a great idea?” (I have since cut back on coffee and never have written any such plays, but even sober, I still think it’s a good idea). “If you think that’s interesting,” B.D. said, pausing to sip the last of his flat white and raising an eyebrow, “let me tell you about Ern Malley.”

Most Australians grew up hearing about this great literary hoax and the outcry surrounding it, but it was new to me, and I found it delightful. I’ve thought about it often since that conversation and even did a little research. Ern Malley has his own website after all (http://www.ernmalley.com), which I suppose shouldn’t be so surprising given his larger than life dimensions. For anyone who’s forgotten, Malley’s creators, two bored young soldiers, decided to prank an old University mate. Max Harris just happened to be the editor of Angry Penguins, a literary journal the hoaxers considered to be pretentious, self-glorifying, and a bit ridiculous.

One lazy, wet Saturday afternoon, they sat down to write poetry according to a few explicit rules: there must be no coherent theme; no care was to be taken with verse technique; and they must only use phrases from the books that happened to be on the desk at the time (which included a military manual on mosquito control). The two later described the result as a “literary experiment”, “a wonderful jape!”, “a free association” test”, “utterly devoid of any literary merit as poetry”, simply “a grab-bag of plagiarised lines and snippets of bad verse.” Harold Stewart and James McAuley fabricated the poems the way Frankenstein was put together, without method or thought, but merely combining bits and pieces that were lying around.

Much later, they confessed: “Having completed the poems, we wrote a very pretentious and meaningless Preface and Statement, which purported to explain the aesthetic theory on which they were based. Then we elaborated the details of the poet’s life. This took more time than the composition of his Works.” Thus Ern Malley was born.

Peter Carey resurrects the Ern Malley ‘affair’ in his novel, My Life as a Fake. His version of the story results in a provocative, compelling and mysterious novel—almost a detective fiction—about layers of literary creation, about literature and reputation and the creative process itself. Setting the story within the dark framework of such a hoax, his novel explores how literary creation can take on a life of its own and lead to unexpected and dangerous outcomes.

My Life as a Fake is about the tension between truth and fiction. It shifts between seeing first one and then the other as the monster of the story. Truth is shown “dismembered and scattered” in the dead figure of Chubb, whose “substance, the blood that had coursed through his heart” is splattered over Sarah, the story’s narrator.

Carey most definitely has monsters on his mind. The novel opens with a quote by Mary Shelley. Later, the narrator recalls Milton’s fascination for Satan at the expense of the epic’s ‘hero’. And McCorkle’s journal, his work of genius, is described in various passages as though it were a living thing, with descriptive words like “rough and slippery”, and as a creature having “foreign stippled skin” and “claws”. When Chubb gives it to Sarah, she observes, “…when he laid his square hand on it and his cracked nails and liver spots made contact with its weathered skin, both book and hand seemed to be related parts of the same creature.”

Truth and fiction become intertwined, interchangeable.  Literary reputation is called into question.  At every level, life insinuates itself into literature, and literature insinuates itself into life.

There is a ‘twinning’ going on. There is the person who writes. Someone much like you and me. Someone who sleeps, eats, works, gets bored, worries, cooks, shops, reads to his children, laughs, and gets headaches. And there is the ‘author’. This is someone who exists as a separate being on a higher plane. We think of him as descending occasionally to launch books or give interviews; otherwise, he exists in a place apart from the rest of us, breathing in the rarified air of inspiration, nibbling the manna of creativity, producing one beautifully crafted passage after another.

Another of Carey’s novels—Theft, A Love Story—is about a different kind of artist, a painter whose reputation has floundered. I couldn’t help but think that Carey’s revisiting the question of artistic reputation, but from another direction. Is it that he’s exploring his own ambivalence towards success? Towards constantly playing the role of ‘author’? And who can blame him really? It’s something that every successful author must face, and it is a kind of monster. After all, how does one reconcile the private individual with the public persona? How much of oneself can one afford to give away? How much of real life is it safe to draw on? Even if characters are entirely made up, how does one keep them under control when they take a breath and begin to move, to act, to take on a life of their own?

I don’t blame Carey for this resistance. He is perhaps the most likely Australian novelist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in coming years. That prospect may be a thrilling one, but it must also be terrifying. Maybe in dealing with these themes, he’s battling with the monsters Reputation and Persona and Literature and Career. Because in the modern context, the journey of the artist in search of his art, his story, and his career can be perilous.

The Ern Malley website has a section called Ern Malley Today. Although the hoaxers are dead, Ern Malley is proclaimed to “live on!” Apparently, “his light is undimmed.” The page lists the books and productions and compositions he’s inspired. Indeed, some consider Malley’s ‘poetry’ to be among Australia’s finest.

Some creations refuse to live in the cages their creators have written for them. They burst off the page and out of the story. The Ern Malley affair has a happy ending. Indeed, it’s a playful and charming footnote to Australian literary history, summoning up an era of personalities and friendships not unlike America’s Brook Farm and England’s Bloomsbury. Carey’s version, however, is much darker. The editor commits suicide, the hoaxer is driven mad and eventually murdered. And don’t forget Capote’s vehement pursuit of “the story”, which created another kind of monster. One that resided within. One that led him to alcohol and eventually killed him.

I think Carey is doing it right. He seems aware of the danger and is facing it in his art, creating versions of literary monsters, playing out the possibilities, battling them over and over, and in doing so, keeping them under control. Just.

By Adair Jones.

(First published in Arts Hub in 2006.)

“One cannot hide from the glare of one’s own writing”

Posted in Musings..., Uncategorized by Adair Jones on April 30, 2009

Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy

Take the case of Arundhati Roy. Her first and only novel, The God of Small Things, won the Man Booker Prize in 1997, which brought her instant international acclaim. She traded on this in the best of ways, donating time, money and attention on the issues at the heart of her novel: communism, the Indian caste system and the treatment of untouchables, and the far-reaching effects of colonialism on Indian life. A slew of other prizes followed: in 2002, she won the Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize; and, in 2004, she was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize for her advocacy of non-violence and social justice.

For Roy, the work of art is not only to bear witness but to get people thinking, talking and acting. In her case, before all the accolades and prizes, Roy was charged with obscenity in India, which made her aware of the real value of literature: the right to speak freely.

She first heard of the accusations when she was on a book tour. Obscenity is a criminal offense in India and, at the time, Roy risked imprisonment. She returned home immediately and began the fight to restore her name. Speaking of it later in an interview with Salon, Roy said, “One cannot hide from the glare of one’s own writing.”

Eventually, she was cleared of the charges, but for Roy the real fight had only begun. To have her novel associated with obscenity took attention away from the issues she was hoping to bring to light and, consequently, incited Roy to deeper, more meaningful activism.

To get people thinking:  There is a unique relationship between art and engagement. According to Eva Sallis, “A writer is neither exactly private nor exactly expert.” What a writer brings to an issue, however, is an ability to represent, to communicate effectively and emotionally, to convince.

The academic Brigid Rooney looks at the intersection of writers and activism in her new book, Literary Activists: Writer Intellectuals and Australian Public Life. Despite the fact that the title sounds much like that of a PhD thesis, her book is highly readable, well-informed and full of fascinating anecdotes. It’s impossible to do the book justice in this space but worth mentioning, in terms of the discussion of Roy above, that Australia too has a long history of literary figures using their writing to bring attention to social causes. Rooney presents several Australian literary figures from Patrick White to Oodgeroo Noonuccal to Les Murray. Each of the cases are interesting and well worth a look; however, the two that most engaged me were the almost opposite stories of Helen Garner and Tim Winton.

To get people talking:  Rooney focuses on Garner’s experience with her book The First Stone, which concerns the sexual harassment allegations made by two female students against Melbourne University’s Master of Ormond College and the ensuing court case. Garner is portrayed as a ‘public interventionist’ for having pre-empted public consensus by writing a letter of sympathy to the accused man, who lost his job and his good reputation. At the time, this event, according to Rooney, “ripened swirling debates about academic elites, ‘culture wars’ and ‘political correctness’”. Where one stood on the issue at the time largely depended on age, education, gender, and other factors.

Garner’s letter was seen as speaking for the public at large at a moment when the public was at odds. Its existence froze the debate, and it hasn’t unthawed in all these years. Even now, controversy rages around Garner, with many young women refusing to read her books because they consider her a traitor to feminism. Still, Garner regularly ranks in the Top Ten lists of Australian intellectuals. The fact that she riles and stirs debate is considered to be a good thing.

To get people acting: Tim Winton excites us differently. Rather than dividing public opinion and stirring controversy, he is extolled for engaging the masses en large. Being described as a ‘littoralist’, someone, in other words, “who picks over things at the edges” is a label that delights Winton. He is literary and popular at the same time.

In a speech delivered at the State Library of Queensland in 2007, Winton began:

I don’t know what other special right I have to be addressing you. Certainly not as a novelist. Who cares what a novelist thinks?

He asserts that it is his sense of social responsibility and his concern for the environment that give him the right to speak. What he’s missing, however, is that many of us possess the same concern and the sense of responsibility; and yet we are not asked to speak at the State Library on conservation issues. It is precisely Winton’s status as a writer, his command of language and his ability to communicate, in addition to his passion for protecting the environment, that qualify Winton to speak. Crowds turn up to hear Winton. Not because he has written books, but because his books have touched us. They’ve helped to solidify our own jumbled sense of nature and the wild and why we must protect it.

Because of his books, we have a clear sense where he stands. We can trust him to put into words something we feel and know but can’t necessarily articulate.

The spotlight of engagement: In very different ways, each of these writers looks unblinkingly at what their writing has illuminated; each stands in the spotlight of engagement, no matter how uncomfortable the glare. Action worthy of gratitude and emulation.

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What makes for good writing?

Posted in Fundamentals by Adair Jones on January 30, 2009

What makes for good writing? There are a thousand ways to go about answering this question. One might offer examples—Shakespeare, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. These are writers who have produced good writing. But listing them doesn’t get at why they are good. And it offers no help to the writer who is wondering how to produce something striking, original, and moving.

A better approach is to turn the question around: What are the things that if they are missing make a piece of writing not good? Three essential elements jump out right away: practice, trust, and judgment.

Practice

In a recent interview, the Australian writer, Helen Garner said:

“…you’ve got to practice every day. It’s like practicing an instrument if you’re a musician or keeping your tools sharpened. After many years of daily practice… you actually build up a competence.”

Cormac McCarthy said something similar but more laconically: “If you’re going to be a writer, then writing is what you have to do.”

These successful writers are on to something. Daily writing is the place to innovate, experiment, try on other voices. It’s daily exercise, like jogging, swimming laps or working out at a gym. It keeps you fit, trim, well-trained.

Be disciplined: set a goal—one hour, so many words—and do it everyday. A lack of daily practice will show in a piece of writing.

Trust

If practice is like daily exercise, trust works as the metabolic centre of the writing process. It’s what fuels good writing.

This element is about having a good relationship with your creative self. It works in several ways:

  • Knowing when to listen – Certain ideas and themes resonate for a reason. It’s because you have something to say.
  • Believing in the inner work – If the time is not right, forcing it won’t come to any good. There is a really important purpose to writer’s block, and this should be listened to.
  • Drawing from the well – Having a notebook on hand to jot ideas down as they occur is one method. Some writers never do this, however. They test the value of an idea by letting it surface over and over.
  • Communicating honestly – Find your voice; be authentic. Write what you know. Find a way to put yourself and your experiences into the story.

Attempting to control the process, writing prematurely or in the wrong genre, and being inauthentic in any way will show in the quality of the writing.

Judgment

Everyone’s heard the saying: One part inspiration, ten parts perspiration. Inspiration comes from trusting in the writing process; judgment is the ‘ten parts perspiration’. It’s the conscious grind, bringing the intellect to bear on each and every aspect of the process.

If practice is what keeps one in shape as a writer, and trust is the inner work—the metabolic system—of writing, judgment is involved with the actual performance. It’s the ‘big game’, where a writer gets to apply training, draw from the well of creativity, and produce a fine piece of writing.  It requires rigour, energy, stamina: How many drafts are needed to get it right?  How much reshaping? How much editing?

Hemingway said: “The mark of a good book is how much good writing you cut out of it.” Stephen King said: “Be prepared to murder your darlings”.

It’s a good idea to read your work out loud. Wherever you stumble, make a change. I heard a story about a writer who holds herself to account in the following way: Before she submits any piece of writing, she performs a ritual. She goes into the bathroom, takes off her clothes, stands before the mirror and reads it out loud. Asked why she does this, she says: because if I’m there naked in front of the mirror, I can’t hide and I can’t lie.

Conclusion

The more one practices, the more one trusts in the process and the more one exercises experienced judgment, the better the writing will be. It’s a simple approach that will lead to honest, living prose.